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EAP Publication - 21

The pesticide debate

An environmentalist's view By S.B. Hill

Getting into the pesticide debate is asking to be insulted. If you voice concerns about pesticides you are likely to be told that you are a misinformed idealist who has become a victim of irrational fears; and if you speak for pesticides you might be referred to as a profiteering polluter and people poisoner.

Because both groups tend to be emotionally committed to their points of view, they usually have difficulty listening to one another or acknowledging the existence of data which weaken their respective arguments.

While suspecting that pesticides will still be used well into the twenty-first century and that they do have justifiable uses, I like to classify myself as a rational environmentalist who would like to minimize their use. I would, however, rather see this achieved through education and human development than through a heavy reliance on regulation which, like pesticides, should be used as a last resort. This will require access to reliable and relevant information and freedom from emotional attachment.

Farmers do not want to pollute the environment; they use pesticides because of their availability, convenience, efficiency and ability to generate profit. Effective alternatives to pesticides are presently not available for most agricultural pests in Canada or, if available, are often less convenient to use. Access to bank loans and crop insurance is often tied to the use of pesticides. Most farmers would be willing to stop spraying if safe alternatives, with the positive characteristics of pesticides, were available.

Pesticides do not solve the causes of pest problems. This is why once we start using them we are likely to become dependent on them. In contrast, an approach based on changes in farm management, which does have the potential to deal with causes, is likely to be permanent.

Pesticides have a number of inherent problems. Nonspecificity: contrary to common beliefs, specific pesticides cannot be developed because pests are not biologically defined. They are economic or nuisance entities and chemicals cannot discriminate on the basis of these criteria. The fact that some chemicals are less toxic than others to certain beneficial organisms, such as bees, is not evidence of specificity because the same chemicals may be more toxic to certain other beneficial groups, such as earthworms. Increasing ineffectiveness with increased use: this is because of the damage to natural controls and the inevitable development of resistance and secondary pests. Low efficiency in reaching the target: as most of the pesticide usually misses the target, there is a high probability that it will harm beneficial non-target organisms, including ourselves. High risk of misuse: users often do not take the time to read the fine print on the labels and may base their decision to spray on the presence of the pest rather than on a more reliable indicator, such as its population density and its relationship to the economic injury level (if this has been determined). Widespread sub-lethal effects on non-target organisms: pesticides may have physiological and behavioural effects on beneficial organisms. The increasing incidence of allergy to pesticides in humans is particularly significant. Persistence: most pesticides, or their poisonous breakdown products, persist beyond the time when their toxic properties are required. During this time, they will be subject to dispersal by wind and water and to concentration up the food chain. Increasing cost and decreasing availability: as regulations governing pesticide use become more restrictive, costs of production will increase, and as most are derived

from non-renewable resources they are likely to become less available with time.

The problem is that most of these negative aspects of pesticides are ignored when conducting cost-benefit analyses. The benefits of pesticide use are experienced primarily by the user whereas their harmful side-effects must be paid for by the population at large, including the unborn population.

Being aware of the above will not on its own lead us to use pesticides in a rational way. This is partly because they possess a symbolic "magical bullet" quality that makes them attractive to many proponents. Because they are technologically powerful solutions they have the potential of making the proponent feel powerful while using or recommending them. As people develop their internal sense of power, it has been found that they tend to be less attracted to such external symbols of power, which may be regarded as "compensatory". Until this symbolic aspect of pesticide is recognized, progress in the development of alternatives to pesticides is unlikely to be really significant. When considering alternatives, it is particularly important to be sure that we are judging them on their efficacy and not their power symbolism. For many environmentalists, it may be the pesticide producers and users who represent the power symbols, but in this case, the tendency is to rebel against them and strive to regulate them. It is hoped that these environmentalists, by developing their own sense of personal power, will be able to take a more rational approach to pesticide use; and eventually work together with producers to design a food system which can nourish and fulfill present and future generations.

Stuart Hill is associate professor in the department of entomology at Macdonald College.

Copyright 1983 Ecological Agriculture Projects


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